Guest article by Alister Benn

Welcome to the second part of my shooting landscapes at night article – if you missed Shooting for the Stars Part I it can be found here – Shooting for the Stars – Part I

When I first began shooting images at night back in 2004 I was learning everything from scratch, as I had only recently started with landscape photography. Until then I had been a professional bird photographer making images of birds in the wilds of China for books and magazines. I came into landscape photography very green, but with a keen eye for composition, simplicity and graphics.

As I matured in all disciplines it was very clear to me that regardless of our subjects, the basics of photographic expression are the same – it is after all a visual language, and we need to be clear, concise and articulate in our arrangements, much as we are when we open our mouths to speak.

On the rare events when we don’t think before we speak, many wild and chaotic things can happen and a morning after of regret can be the common result!

When we make photographs, we are producing something to share with someone else – usually someone who was not there at the time. We have to distill that event into a coherent and powerful expression allowing that third party to experience something of the essence of the place and the time. Our success as landscape photographers in many ways is measured by the power of that impact.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister BennAnna’s Hummingbird

San Francisco 2004.

Simplicity of composition, subject isolation and graphics were an important part of my wildlife images.

There is no reason not to follow those same principles in any other aspect of photography.

In the first part of this article I explained the importance of knowing how much night light we had available to make images. Scene Evaluation should be the starting point of any night shoot that we do –it also tells us so much more that what our ideal exposure values are.

Long exposures at night are – long. They can take a long time, and it is a huge waste of time to wait until two hours later to see if your image was sharp, or even well composed! The High ISO Test shot as described in Part I is also the perfect time to check your focus and composition.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister BennAma Dablam, Everest Region – Nepal

Focusing in the Dark

Without hijacking this article and writing nothing else but focus, we need to make this simple, and I’ll only make a few super critical points instead of writing a 200-page novel!

You will have more problems with focus, depth of field and image sharpness in these scenarios.

  1. The closer the lens is to the nearest thing you want in focus.
  2. The longer focal length you use.
  3. The larger aperture you use – f2.8 etc.

In night photography, having sharp starts is a must – nobody wants to look at images of blurred horizons and fuzzy stars, whether they are points (blobs) of light or trails.

This means we really need to have infinity at focus and the foreground will suffer if it is too close to the camera.  If you focus at infinity and are mindful of having nothing too close to the front of the frame, life is a whole lot easier. Night photography can be challenging enough without adding to our problems by trying to make super complex compositions that are sharp from a few feet in front of the lens to infinity.

Just quickly I want to mention the concept of Hyperfocal Distance – This is the theory that at a certain focal point derived by the Camera Brand, Focal Length and Aperture, everything from half that distance to infinity should be in focus eg.

24mm (on a full frame sensor) @ f4 the hyperfocal distance = 4.82m (15.82ft)

If you focus the camera at roughly 16 feet, everything from 8 feet to infinity should be in focus. There are complications, and I don’t rely 100% on this, but it is a good guideline. In the above example, I would focus at about 20 feet and make sure nothing was closer in the frame than about 12 feet.

There are many hyperfocal calculators online and apps for smart phones.

The alternative to focus on infinity (the moon, a distant house, car etc) and make sure nothing is too close to the frame – this is usually a safe method. If there is no moon then I will place a torch on the ground at near the hyperfocal distance point and focus on that with AF and then turn AF off.

Focus can be tough – make it simple for yourself by shooting a lot of sky with less foreground in the frame.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister BennSeljalandsfoss – Iceland

Composing in the Dark

Just because a photograph is taken at night does not make it special! As with daytime photography, great images tend to be the result of great compositions. Take as much time and thought as you would on any other photo shoot and the results will be far more rewarding. The high ISO test shot tells you everything you need to know about your composition.

These 10 questions will help you find stronger compositions.

  1. Is the subject clear?
  2. If there is more than one subject, does one dominate?
  3. Is it balanced?
  4. Does it say “night”?
  5. Is there flow?
  6. Are there any leading lines?
  7. Are there any strong shapes, like triangles or circles?
  8. Are subjects isolated?
  9. Is there a sense of scale?
  10. Are their any unwanted elements in the frame?

All of the above are very important in creating images that viewers will find more appealing – but number ten is one to really watch out for at night. In the dark we do not see so well! – The camera will see things we cannot. Now is the time to spot the tree branch cutting in to the frame edge, or anything else that shouldn’t be there. My motto with composition has always been this.

 If it doesn’t add to the image don’t include it.

 Sure, you can clone things out, but it is a far better display of craft to avoid them in the first place.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister BennYading National Park – Sichuan, China

The meander of the river leads the eye to the 6000m sacred mountains in the distance. Lines, curves, triangles and colour separation help to isolate all the key elements.

Putting it all together.

The first time I saw this beach I knew I wanted to make some night images there. The combination of wide-open spaces, incongruous jagged sea stacks and facing north towards the pole star made it a prime candidate.

On a clear winter night we made our way down the cliff path to a fine lookout. With a very wide angled lens I could fit the entire scene into my frame and took a High ISO test shot to ascertain the available light.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister Benn14mm @ f2.8 46 seconds ISO 1600

I had focused on the light from the lighthouse as there was no moon. Everything in the frame is at infinity and nothing is close to the foreground. The sea stacks are a good 300 feet away!

I converted the exposure into something longer as my intention was to produce a star trail image. As even the white surf was being shown as a mid tone in the RAW file, I figured an hour would be safe enough, knowing the only thing that would blow out would be the lighthouse.

The resulting image shown below is the result of some processing in Lightroom 5.

Shooting for the Stars – Part II by Alister BennOne thing to really highlight in this image is the way that the circular star trails become a compositional element in their own right. They create a very strong focal point that has to complement and balance with the other subjects in the frame. Being aware of how trails will look in a final frame and relate to the landscape led me to call my night photography eBook – Seeing the Unseen. We are trying to visualize things we cannot always see,

The line of the seas stacks leading into the vortex is a pleasant coincidence of the location and viewpoint.

Night photography is a wonderful opportunity to create unique and refreshing images pretty much anywhere – we just need to be mindful of some of the more common pitfalls.

Is it focused?

Is it Exposed?

Is it a good composition?

Are those questions any different from shooting a familiar location at any other time of the day?


Alister Benn


June 2014.

 Bio – Alister Benn is a professional landscape photographer and author and lives in the Highlands of Scotland with his wife Juanli Sun. They are both co-founders and directors of Whytake – The Global Community of Nature Photographers.

Fine Art Prints & Workshops –

Night & Seascape Photography eBooks –

Whytake –

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